When manipulation of water bodies becomes a recipe for disaster

9th Apr 2017
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Jalyukt Shivar, the flagship scheme of Maharashtra’s water conservation department, is worrisome for its myopic vision and faulty implementation, say experts.

Deepening work in progress on the Manjara river in Latur (Source: Ravindra Pomane)

The summer of 2015 saw Maharashtra reeling under severe drought. The government launched the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan (JYS) that involves deepening and widening of streams and nullahs, construction of cement and earthen stop dams, and digging of farm ponds to mitigate the annual drought situation in the state. The project gained momentum last summer with the state witnessing one of the worst droughts in recent times

Following an appeal by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, many prominent personalities like film stars Nana Patekar and Aamir Khan, politicians, spiritual organisations such as Siddhivinayak and Shirdi Sai temple trusts, and even big corporate organisations likes Janakidevi Bajaj, KRIDAI, Bridgestone, KPAI, and Volkswagen came forward to lend support to the project.

Calling JYS the flagship scheme of the water conservation department, former cabinet minister in charge of water conservation Pankaja Munde, in an interview with Free Press Journal in February 2016, claimed to have saved 24 TMC water from various JYS activities. “We chose to build small irrigation lakes, tanks, check dams, and irrigation wells which saved 24 TMC water. We saved money and energy on the rehabilitation of the villagers and building canals by opting to work on this,” she was quoted as saying.

Ongoing work on the Manjara river in Latur (Image source: Ravindra Pomane)

The government has been claiming to have yielded positive results from the project from the first year itself. In a 2015 interview, commenting on the success of the project, the chief minister was quoted as saying, “In less than a year, the state has created additional water capacity of 24 TMC, which can bring a six-lakh-acre area under irrigation. With the withdrawing monsoon rains, drought-hit Osmanabad and Solapur have accumulated water where JYS works were undertaken. I have been told that the area under jowar cultivation is going to get doubled or even tripled during the rabi season. That is the reason JYS is going to be a path-breaking scheme for the entire country.”

Though the news trickling in from various parts of the state where the project is underway shows positive outcomes in terms of solving the immediate and short-term water needs of highly water-stressed regions like Beed, Latur, Hingoli, Solapur, and Kolhapur, experts studying the water crisis and the project believe it is preposterous to laud a project as successful looking only at the immediate results. More definitive results are awaited after the monsoon in the state

The experts and researchers from organisations working in the field — Society For Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM)Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM)Lokabhimukh Pani Dhoran Sangharsh Manch, Maharashtra Rajya Dushkal Nirmulan Nivaran Samiti — met to discuss the long-term effects of JYS on the environment and ecology with its unscientific method of deepening and widening of not only streams but rivers as well.

Here’s a lowdown on what JYS entails and the concerns raised by the experts.

JYS and the much-debated Shirpur model

The deepening and widening of streams under the JYS began after the villages of Shirpur region in Dhule district reportedly solved the water crisis through this method in 2004. A flurry of similar works under the Shirpur model was witnessed in other villages.

Following this, the Ghare Committee was set up by the government to look into the feasibility of the Shirpur model. The committee, in its report made in 2011, found major gaps in the model and argued that many of the interventions were scientifically and technically wrong. Based on the report, the government brought out a Government Resolution (GR) on May 9, 2013.

Retired professor from Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), Aurangabad, Pradeep Purandare says that many points mentioned in the GR are not being followed. Rivers have not even been included in the GR. “The GR says deepening work is only permitted on the second- and the third-order streams, but it is being done on rivers as well. Also, the JYS scheme has 13 different components of which deepening is just one. Others include upper-catchment works from where the stream originates, bank stabilisation (protection of the stream banks and restoring ecology such as trees around it), repairs, desilting, and cleaning of tanks. These works would make the scheme holistic, but none of these are given importance,” he says. The GR also mentions that the basic aim of nullah or stream deepening is not surface storage but recharging groundwater. It also provides suggestions on how far the deepening of streams should go.

Poor understanding of hydrogeological principles

Senior hydrogeologist from ACWADAM, Dr Himanshu Kulkarni opposes the overemphasis on the deepening of rivers and streams. He says this is because, “large streams and small rivers, whether within a small watershed or large river basins, are the lowest points on the surface where an aquifer discharges its groundwater." “Even if attempts are made to store large quantities of water by dredging or excavating the streams, this accumulated water cannot move upwards through the aquifer because shallow aquifers with which such channels are connected show a hydraulic gradient (flow of water from a higher level to the lower level) that follows the topography of the land, with the lowest point along the gradient being in the stream or river channel that is excavated,” he explains. Thus, it is questionable if aquifers can be recharged this way.

Apart from this, excessive digging could open up and expose the aquifers below, thus polluting them and causing long-term damage. The emphasis should be on aquifer recharge by following the ridge-to-valley approach, i.e. in the direction of the downward hydraulic gradient and not against it. Also, trying to straighten the natural, zigzag flow can disturb the river and result in its gradual stagnation and death.

Focus only on drought mitigation

Experts argue that while excessively focusing on deepening and widening of streams and rivers to create water storage, the JYS has failed to address issues that deal with equitable sharing of available water among communities, drinking water security, reducing water demand through crop planning mechanisms, and better water-sharing strategies to ensure sustainability in the long run.

Lack of accountability or evaluation of the project

Ongoing work on the Manjara river in Latur. (Image source: Ravindra Pomane)

The increased participation of private players has alienated the local communities from participating in the JYS efforts. Use of funds by private operators for the implementation of the project at various places and the mindless digging of water bodies by them has also been criticised.

KJ Joy from SOPPECOM believes there is an urgent need to question the actions being taken under JYS, where the corporate sector has also been extensively involved. “There is no accountability or evaluation of the activities or resources being used. Neither is there any systematic mechanism in place for procuring land from farmers for excavation nor for the silt removed from the site. The villagers are not informed when the scheme is implemented and there is no consideration of the damage to public property,” he says. “Unlike in the case of watershed development, there is no institutional mechanism at the village level for informed and participatory decision-making in JYS. It’s a free-for-all,” he adds.

Moreover, use of huge machines for the work has taken possible job opportunities away from the villagers. Seema Kulkarni of SOPPECOM informs that the majority of the funds for JYS come from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MNREGA scheme.

What can be the way forward?

Although efforts are being made to overcome water scarcity through community participation with support from the government, which is commendable and a step in the positive direction, experts believe that much has to be done to execute the work in the right way. They say that the work should:

  • Follow scientific principles, better planning and management with focus on broader ecological and sustainability issues rather than exclusively focusing on drought management.
  • Shift from supply management to demand management with micro watershed as a primary unit and not a village and focus on principles of watershed management.
  • Integrate with other programmes focusing on forest, soil, and water conservation.
  • Be evaluated for technical feasibility and its long-term and short-term impacts.
  • Provide better access to information and data on the efforts.
  • Focus on equity- and water-sharing mechanisms.
  • Provide better employment opportunities by combining it with other schemes such as MNREGA.
  • Assess accountability in implementation.
  • Learn from other projects like the participatory groundwater management approach (PGWM)followed by ACWADAM that empower communities on groundwater recharge and encourage them to take decisions.
  • Critically analyse the GR.

Instead of getting carried away by short-term successes, the government should also consider the long-term implications of these actions which could be a future ecological disaster in the making.

Disclaimer: This article, authored by Aarti Kelkar-Khambete, was first published in India Water Portal.

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